Main Street Community Church


Part 4: 1 Kings 17:8–16

This talk was given by Neil Banks on . It is the fourth in a series on hospitality.

The total length of the recording is .

During the talk, the passage was read from the CEV (Contemporary English Version), For copyright reasons that could not be included in the recording. It is replaced by a short silence at about 4' 17" into the talk. The passage is included below but from the NLT (New Living Translation) as its copyright allows short passages to be used non-commercial media.

The Widow at Zarephath

Then the Lord said to Elijah, “Go and live in the village of Zarephath, near the city of Sidon. I have instructed a widow there to feed you.”

So he went to Zarephath. As he arrived at the gates of the village, he saw a widow gathering sticks, and he asked her, “Would you please bring me a little water in a cup?” As she was going to get it, he called to her, “Bring me a bite of bread, too.”

But she said, “I swear by the Lord your God that I don’t have a single piece of bread in the house. And I have only a handful of flour left in the jar and a little cooking oil in the bottom of the jug. I was just gathering a few sticks to cook this last meal, and then my son and I will die.”

But Elijah said to her, “Don’t be afraid! Go ahead and do just what you’ve said, but make a little bread for me first. Then use what’s left to prepare a meal for yourself and your son. For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: There will always be flour and olive oil left in your containers until the time when the Lord sends rain and the crops grow again!”

So she did as Elijah said, and she and Elijah and her family continued to eat for many days. There was always enough flour and olive oil left in the containers, just as the Lord had promised through Elijah.

1 Kings 17:8–16 (NLT)

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Morning. Today we’re continuing the series on hospitality. I’m going to refer to it today throughout as philoxenia hospitality. I’d like to remember that word, ‘philoxenia’. By the way, we’re now 37 sleeps away from Christmas Day. If you haven’t already, pretty soon it will be time to be preparing and planning, probably buying in more food and drink than you’ll ever need to sustain you for just a few days, as well as probably countless gifts and decorations.

We might grumble about it, but Christmas is a time when we gather friends and family around and we try to be hospitable to each other, but are we being philoxenia hospitable? Now, if you look up the word hospitality in an English dictionary, you’ll find a definition that broadly gives two meanings. First, the act of being friendly and welcoming to guests and visitors, or secondly, the food, drink, and entertainment that an organisation provides for guests or business partners.

Now, the origin of that word, hospitality, has its roots in the ancient Greek word ’philoxenia’. See, I said, remember it. Now, that word is a combination of two concepts that break down as follows. Phileo is one of several words for love in Greek, and it specifically refers to brotherly love or to love like a brother. Xenos, which is the second part of the word, actually means stranger or immigrant. If we stop and think for a moment about words that we use in our modern culture that begin with ’xeno’, we think of perhaps our current US president who is xenophobic about caravans, or here in the UK, we’re taking back control of our borders to prevent us from becoming xeno-contaminated, or so we’re told.

In our modern day Western narrative, we’re being told to be fearful of the stranger, the immigrant and to do everything we can to dissuade them from coming here, and if they do, to keep them well away from us. Consider, then, our version of hospitality versus that ancient meaning of philoxenia. You see, instead of simply having friends round, the world becomes one who loves strangers and immigrants like you would your own family, that makes a massive difference for a number of reasons.

First, caring for and entertaining our friends, while undoubtedly a nice thing to do, and probably most of us would consider ourselves to be hospitable on the superficial level, is only really hospitality-light when compared to this deeper meaning. Why does this matter? Because when we become aware of the depth of meaning that philoxenia brings to hospitality, this completely changes the way we should interpret the hospitality we read about in Scripture. Suddenly, this becomes philoxenia hospitality, a more difficult and challenging expectation of us from God. As we’ll see in today’s passage, philoxenia hospitality means showing generosity of spirit, empathy, and brotherly love for someone you don’t know, even when you have so little to offer them.

In Romans 12:13, we’re told to practice hospitality. This doesn’t mean we should brush up on our dinner party skills. Instead, we are to go out of our way, to love strangers and immigrants, as if they were our siblings, our closest family.

I’m reading today from the Contemporary English Version of the Bible, and it’s 1 Kings 17:8–16. Elijah helps a widow in Zarephath.

The text and audio of this passage in the CEV cannot be included here because of copyright restrictions.

Now, Elijah is an important prophet, certainly in Judaism. His lifetime is chronicled in First and Second Kings, including the many miracles he performs, such as the one we’ve read today. Now, the background to this is that Elijah appeared in the land of Israel at a most crucial time. The Land of Israel was divided into two kingdoms, the kingdom of Judah and the kingdom of the 10 tribes. On the throne of the latter sat King Ahab, but the true ruler of the land was his wife, Queen Jezebel, originally a Phoenician princess who never really gave up her Phoenician way of life. Her influence was great, not merely over her husband, but throughout the kingdom, and as a result, the worship of the Baal, the God of the Phoenicians, spread with ever greater force, and this caused a great deal of trouble for the land of Israel.

Earlier in chapter 17, we read that one day prophet Elijah and King Ahab met. Now, Elijah warned the king of the divine punishment that would be visited on his land if he did not abolish idol worship, and did not cause a general return of Israel to worshipping Yahweh. Now, Ahab scoffed this idea, saying, “Didn’t Moses already warn us in the Torah that the rain would cease and the land would not give forth its produce if we should worship other gods? Nothing has happened as yet.’ But as Elijah said, from that day on years of drought and famine began in the land of Israel. This famine was widespread and spread even beyond the borders of the land so that things like bread became almost impossible to buy.

Now, what we see in chapter 17 of Kings is the passing of divine judgement. It’s important to note that the Baal god that they were worshipping at that time was supposedly the god of fertility and rain, and yet this drought persisted for over three years and showed that this false god was powerless to intervene and do anything. What God was doing here was abandoning his people to his judgement, and he tells Elijah to hide as the drought leads to famine. Throughout this time that God is taking care of Elijah by directing him to a brook where he can hide and drink water. For food, God miraculously provides rations of bread and meat twice daily delivered by ravens.

Now, I don’t know whether you’ve ever had food delivered by a raven, but I’m not sure whether it would be an entirely unusual circumstance, but it did sustain Elijah, but eventually, because God hasn’t delivered Elijah from the drought and the famine, he has to move on. This isn’t a life of luxury, this is sustenance he is receiving miraculously from God. Now, Elijah has put his trust in God thus far, but now God tells him to leave and go to the town of Zarapheth in Sidon, and God says to Elijah, “There is a widow there, I will command her to provide you with food.”

Now, it’s important to note that Sidon wasn’t part of Israel. The people who live there were not Elijah’s people. They were not Jews. They were Gentiles. They weren’t descendants of Abraham, and they didn’t follow God’s laws. This is the very land where the worship of the Baal god originated, and the worship that landed God’s judgment on his chosen people. Even so, that is where God told Elijah to go. Trusting again in the Lord, that’s where he went. Elijah’s faith in the Lord is in direct contrast to what has been happening in Israel under Ahab’s reign. When Elijah comes to the town gates in Zarephath, he finds a widow there gatherings sticks. Now, undoubtedly, Elijah will be hot, tired and thirsty after his journey. In times of plenty, it wouldn’t be unusual to arrive at a town and find water and food, but these are far from normal times, and water and food are in short supply. Now, as we’re told of the widow’s plans for one last meal for her and her son, we realize that things look bad at Zarephath too. But no matter how bad things might have seemed, God was still there.

Elijah tells the woman to carry on with her plans to feed herself and her son, but to bring him a small amount of bread first. In essence, Elijah is asking for the woman to give her all to fulfil his needs for food. This demands a massive act of faith on her part. If this doesn’t work out, she and her son are most definitely doomed. Yet the woman does as she is instructed, she takes that giant step of faith and is rewarded with flour and oil that does not run out, day after day. It’s important to know, just as when the ravens were feeding Elijah earlier, this woman’s faith doesn’t mean that God delivers 20 giant stone jars of oil to the widow’s door next morning, she doesn’t open her kitchen cupboard and find it filled with flour.

Elijah and the widow couldn’t see where the oil was going to come from, they just had to trust each day somehow there would be enough. You see, it’s easy to trust in something you can see, so you know you’re going to survive a famine if you can see your cupboard and fridge brimming with food. In this passage, Elijah and the widow have to learn to trust in God’s hospitality, and in that it will sustain them day by day. This is miraculous philoxenia hospitality, loving the stranger as if it were your closest family.

I must admit that I struggle with this depth of welcoming a stranger, a foreigner, someone in desperate need, because to welcome means to take a leap of faith into the unknown, exactly what God asked of Elijah and the widow. This is why I know I need to trust in the Lord and have faith in his guidance. I wonder, how would you or I respond if we were the widow. Hebrews 13:3 tells us this, “Be sure to welcome strangers into your home. By doing this, some people have welcomed angels as guests without even knowing it.” If we were faced with scarcely nothing to offer and seeing no way out other than starvation, how would we respond? How do we respond to the starving and desperate in our own society when we have so much food and resources available to us? If drought and famine replaced our plenty, would we jealously guard our last meal, or would we share it with all who needed it?

Now, in putting together today’s message, I came across a powerful and moving example of exactly this depth of philoxenia hospitality, and it was in response to the current humanitarian refugee crisis in Syria. Since 2015, a small fishing community of Skala Sikamnias on the Greek island of Lesvos has seen over 700,000 Syrian refugees arrive on its shores. The residents who only number 120 have rescued, clothed, fed, comforted and welcomed these people who have fled from war with nothing. In many cases, not even a life vest. On some occasions, thousands of people have arrived in just one night.

I believe that we do know how to welcome the stranger, but perhaps it takes extreme situations to make us wake up to that need, and only when the situation becomes real to us, because we’re facing that stranger in person. Yet we as Christians now, just as in the days of the early church, can be those beacons of help and hope and welcome to our fellow humans who have fallen on hard times. For there but for the grace of God do I not go.

Closing prayer

I’d like to pray.

Dear God, no matter how bad things might seem, thank you that you are still there. Let us, like Elijah and the widow, learn to put our trust in what we can’t see, knowing that our faith in you will sustain us day by day.

Give us the courage to live truly hospitable lives, to love strangers as if they were our closest family, to refuse to turn away from those in desperate need, and to show them empathy, compassion and love, just as God has shown the deepest of love to us. Amen.

Thank you.

Closing hymn

Moira: Thank you, Neil. There’s probably never been a time in the history of the world where we’ve been more aware of the problems with refugees, and it’s because there is so much news and so many different opinions. We need to pray, as Neil said, as Christians that we do the right thing, that we are welcoming to the strangers in the midst. Thank you for that.

We’re going to sing again now, number 1030, which talks about the Lord being with us all the time, but also we must remember that we need to share that with those around us as well, who don’t know that the Lord is always there. Number 1030, The Lord’s My Shepherd.

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Scripture quotations marked NLT are from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.